Merced City School District (MCSD) opened for the 2020-21 school year on Aug. 12 through its virtual program, Distance Learning, which was also in place from May 4 through the end of the 2019-20 school year due to the closure of the District’s 19 schools last March amidst the pandemic.
According to State guidelines, students cannot attend in-person on-campus instruction until the County of Merced is off the State monitoring list, and it is unknown when that will be since COVID-19 cases are continuing to rise daily.
While teachers are on campus providing instruction as they observe social distancing and wear masks, the students are accessing the curriculum digitally from home using an electronic device. For students who have no devices, the District provided a Chromebook or an iPad, as well as hotspots to students in need of internet service.
Describing the first few days of the new school year, Dr. Richard “Al” Rogers, superintendent of MCSD, told the Times, “There has been a lot of learning along with this, and we’re seeing innovation and growth from every part of the organization to make it happen.
“Distance Learning is working really well. We have very close to 90 percent of our students engaged in the various forms of Distance Learning that we support, which is live instruction, as well as a collection of either recorded or pre-designed educational activities and resources.
“Our nearly 11,000 students have also gone through training and are engaged in this wonderful endeavor. If you walk down the halls of schools, you hear the teachers teaching from their classrooms. It’s really exciting because it sounds like school.
“The vast majority of the teachers wanted to be back in their classrooms where they could work their magic. From my perspective, this was important because it was the only way we could make a commitment to maintain high quality infrastructure. There would be no way they could all teach from home because there would be technical glitches, and it would be impossible for the District to deploy the kind of resources necessary to maintain the infrastructure that way.
“Very close to 100 percent of our 500 teachers are engaged in our Distance Learning program of instruction. In order to get there, the teachers logged 1,600 combined hours of training and preparation. They were able to set things up and adapt their practice in a short amount of time.
“We have around 50 teachers, just under 10 percent, who have medical conditions or situations that make it unhealthy for them to come to work. When they do come to their campuses, they are very isolated while on site.”
Describing a routine school day for teachers, Dr. Rogers said, “The teachers are working a full day in their classrooms, just as if they had their students there in person. But teaching these days consists of a mixture of live instruction, as well as coordination and management of asynchronous instruction.
“While the teachers are doing whole group instruction, which is the largest chunk of the day, they also manage small group teaching and in some cases one-on-one support and interventions. They are also pre-recording elements of their instruction during prep time.”
Describing the student’s school day, he explained, “The students are online pretty much the same time as they were before. Depending on the student’s age, they are participating between three and six hours per day. The majority of that time is live instruction, but it varies between small group, one-on-one intervention, and homework help.
“The teachers are teaching all the subjects, even P.E. They use pre-recorded P. E. lessons, and also the kids can get on Zoom and do exercises. There are plenty of YouTube resources, so P. E. teachers are also linking students to those resources.
“The kids have lunch breaks, brain breaks, and stretch breaks.
“So far, we’re keeping class size structured as it was.
“We have substitute teachers trained in our virtual instructional system, and substitutes are every bit as important as they have been.
“If there’s a teacher who wants to work as a substitute, we can certainly accommodate them.
“Report card criteria is the same, and grading is handled the same way.”
Explaining the discipline system in place, Dr. Rogers said, “We’re dealing with kids and their behaviors, so each school site has a positive behavior intervention and support framework, and they’re pretty uniform. There are a range of interventions and supports to deal with unsuccessful behaviors. These strategies include student-teacher conferences, re-teaching of behavioral expectations, and inviting mom and dad to join in a Zoom conversation. None of those things are new to us. We just do them now, using technology.
“We also have counselors, social workers, Board-certified behavior analysts and school psychologists available.
“Our teachers do preventive behavioral work, also. They have weekly lessons to reinforce successful behaviors, like completing work, online etiquette, and communication skills. This falls on the side of social/emotional skills.”
Describing the students’ response to being back in school through Distance Learning, Dr. Rogers told the Times, “Students can see each other during virtual lessons, and there’s quite a bit of interaction. Youngsters have been feeling the impact of social isolation, and Zoom gives them that sense of community.
“The schools closed down in March, and I think that the overwhelming response, even back then, was ‘We’re going to miss our teachers and our friends.’ The extension of that period of isolation turned out to result in the feeling of ‘I really want to be back in school.’
“The energy I’m seeing throughout the district is that the kids are very grateful to be back. They are enthusiastic in their engagement, and it’s pretty fun to see.”